This Week in Feminist History

Guest Post, · Categories: Feminist History

On September 11 in 1847…

Mary Watson Whitney, an American astronomer, was born in Waltham, Massachusetts. Due to her father’s business success, she was able to attend school in Waltham, then was privately tutored for one year until entering Vassar College in 1865. She earned her degree three years later, despite facing several family tragedies during that time, including her father’s death and the loss of her brother at sea. In 1872, she earned her master’s degree from Vassar as well, after attending several courses at Harvard. (At the time, Harvard didn’t admit women, though they could attend courses as guests. So very gracious of them.) Mary worked as a teacher for a few years, after which she took a job at Vassar as an assistant to astronomer Maria Mitchell. When Maria retired in 1888, Mary became a professor of astronomy and the director of the observatory. In her time supervising at Vassar Observatory, she and others under her published over 102 articles. Mary herself focused on researching comets, variable stars, double stars, and asteroids. She was a charter member of the Astronomical and Astrophysical Society, and also a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Mary lived until January of 1921 when she died of pneumonia at the age of 73.

On September 12th in 1897…

… French scientist and Nobel Prize winner Irène Joliot-Curie was born in Paris, France. Irène, the daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie, began her education where she was ten years old. After her mother became aware of her talent in math, she decided to ensure her daughter had a more challenging education. Marie joined with a number of other French scholars, including Paul Langevin (French physicist) to form a collective of academics who participatied in educating each other’s children. The Cooperative taught their children science and mathematics and also subjects such a sculpture and the Chinese language. After two years, Irène attended the Collège Sévigné in Paris, before moving to Sorbonne Faculty of Science. World War I interrupted her education, at least in the university sense. She assisted her mother in running field hospitals instead, and assisted with the early X-ray technology her parents’ research helped develop. (The radiation they were both exposed to here and later on lead not only to Marie’s eventual death but Irène’s as well.) After the war, Irène finished her education at her parents Radium Institute. By 1925, she had a Doctorate of Science. Around that same time, she met Frédéric Joliot, whom she later married. The pair decided to work together, much like Irène’s parents. Together they identified the positron and the neutron. Unfortunately, they didn’t properly understand the results, and the discoveries were later claimed by other scientists. Their most well-known discovery was in 1934 when Irène and her husband figured out how to transform elements. They turned boron into radioactive nitrogen, magnesium into silicon, and aluminum into phosphorus. Their discovery lead to the quick creation of radioactive materials, and they received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935. Unfortunately, Irène developed leukemia a short while later. Doctors relieved her condition for some time, during which she continued to work. She survived until 1956 when she died of leukemia at the age of 58. Her daughter Hélène Langevin-Joliot is a nuclear physicist, and her son Pierre Joliot is a biochemist.

On September 13th in 1819…

Clara Schumann, a German musician and composer, was born in Leipzig, Germany. Her mother was a concert pianist, and her father taught music. As a result, they made sure to train her in all aspects of music as a child, including composition, harmony, singing, music theory, piano, and violin. Her education continued after her parents separated and she went to live with her father. Clara’s first concert came when she was eleven years old. It included two of her own compositions and lead to several years of performance tours across Europe and her status as a child prodigy. Her career continued into her adulthood, even after her marriage to a student of her father’s (a marriage he had forbidden). Despite her father’s fears that it would end her career, Clara kept on performing and composing music. She did this even as she gave birth to eight children in thirteen years, with very little support from her husband. Her career slowed in this time, but after her husband’s death in 1857 she picked up her career again, traveling and performing until she had an elite reputation again. Though her reputation was as a performer, Clara wrote many compositions, including “Piano Trio in G minor,” and “Quatre Polonaises pour le pianoforte.”

On September 14th in 1882…

… American politician and journalist Winnifred Mason Huck was born in Chicago, Illinois. She attended public schools in her hometown and then in Washington, D.C. After finishing school, she worked as a secretary for her father, William Mason, who was a U.S. Representative and senator in Illinois. After his death, she won a special election to fill his vacancy and became a member of the House of Representatives in November, 1922. She served out the rest of his term through March of 1923, during which time she introduced several bills. Winnifred ignored the unspoken rule wherein new members of Congress generally remained quiet. She spoke up several times, including once in January of 1923 when she addressed the House, asking them to support an amendment that would require a public vote for U.S. involvement in any future overseas wars. Her focus, like that of her father, was on citizenship rights for married women and adding restrictions on child labor. She was also a vocal pacifist. After failing to win reelection, she joined the National Woman’s Party and went on to work in investigative journalism. In her journalism career, she focused on exposing prison system abuse. She went undercover as a convict and wrote multiple articles for the Chicago Evening Post about prison conditions, the justice system, and prisoner rehabilitation. Winnifred died in August of 1936, at the age of 53.

On September 15th in 1940…

Anne Moody—a Civil Rights activist and writer—was born as Essie Mae Moody in Centreville, Mississippi. Anne’s parents split up when she was five years old, and she lived with her mother in Centreville. From a young age, she helped support her family by cleaning the houses of local white families and helping to tutor their children. After graduating high school with honors, she attended the all-black Natchez Junior College on a basketball scholarship and then moved on to Tougaloo College. There she became involved in the Civil Rights Movements by joining organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the NAACP. After graduating with her bachelor’s degree, Anne joined the movement full-time. She took part in a sit-in at Woolworth’s lunch counter, where a mob attacked her and others in an event immortalized in this well-known photograph. (Anne is in the center.) Anne continued to protest, and during Freedom Summer in 1964, she worked for the Congress of Racial Equality in Canton, Mississippi. A few years later she met and married her husband, Austin Strauss. Around that same time, Anne wrote her autobiography, Coming of Age in Mississippi. The book has garnered acclaim over the years for portraying the life of a young black woman before and during the Civil Rights Movement. After two years living in Berlin with her husband and their son, Anne returned to the U.S. and wrote a second autobiography, Farewell to Too Sweet. After settling in Mississippi again, Anne lived out her final years. She died at the age of 74 in February of 2015.

On September 16th in 1672…

… Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet died at the age of 60 in North Andover, Massachusetts. She was born in 1612 in Northhampton, England, the daughter of a well-off family. They had her educated in several languages and subjects. When she was sixteen years old, she married a man named Simon Bradstreet. Two years later, she and her husband emigrated to America along with her mother and father, and settled in Salem, Massachusetts. They were a part of the original Puritan migration to New England. In time they moved south to Charlestown, then Boston, and then finally Cambridge, where they settled for a little longer. There, Anne gave birth to their first child, followed by several more. They continued moving, first to Ipswich and then, when she was pregnant with her sixth child, to North Andover. In time, she gave birth to eight children. During this time, Anne continued to write the poetry she had started as a young woman. She wrote most of her work in the New World. However in 1650, the Rev. John Woodbridge published a manuscript of her poems, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America. The publication made Anne the first poet published in the New World, and the first female writer published both in both countries. She directed many of her poems towards intimate friends and family, including several about her love of her husband. In general, she wrote them not knowing or believing they would ever find publication, due in part to gender norms at the time. As a result, they have a much more warm, intimate tone to them. Though Anne was never a more radical voice in her support of women, she often wrote about women in a way that challenged the traditional views of them at the time. One of her most obvious poems about the subject is “In Honour of that High and Mighty Princess Queen Elizabeth of Happy Memory,” where she writes:

Now say, have women worth, or have they none?
Or had they some, but with our Queen is’t gone?
Nay Masculines, you have thus tax’d us long,
But she, though dead, will vindicate our wrong.
Let such as say our sex is void of reason
Know ‘tis a slander now, but once was treason.

Anne’s health began to fail in her later years, and she was especially upset when her family home burned down in 1666, leaving them homeless and with few possessions. She died in September of 1672, at the age of 60.

On September 17th in 1866…

Mary Burnett Talbert, an African-American suffragist and activist, was born Mary Burnett in Oberlin, Ohio. She attended Oberlin High School and graduated at sixteen, after which she went to Oberlin College. When she graduated with a degree there in 1886, she was the only black woman in that year’s class of graduates. Mary  began teaching, first at Bethel University and then as the assistant principal of Union High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The position was the highest one held by a black woman in the state. A few years later, she married William H. Talbert, and together they moved to Buffalo, New York. In Buffalo, Mary became a civic leader of sorts, through her participation in many clubs and with multiple movements. She was one of the original founding members of the Phyllis Wheatley Club of Colored Women, an affiliate of the National Association of Colored Women. This was part of her focus on specifically creating more clubs for black women, giving them a forum to express themselves. At the same time, she promoted the idea of women working together for their causes, rather than segregating by race. She was also the host of black political activists—including John Hope and W.E.B. Du Bois—at a dinner table meeting that lead to the formation of the Niagara Movement. Mary, along with others in the movement, spawned the organized civil rights movement in America, leading to the eventual creation of the NAACP.  On top of her work for all these organizations, Mary served as a Red Cross nurse during World War I, sold thousands of Liberty Bonds, taught African-American soldiers, lectured across Europe, and was a vocal campaigner for anti-lynching campaigns. She also had a personal interest in historical preservation; one of her acts was to save and restore the Frederick Douglass home in Anacostia, in Washington, D.C. She was the first black woman to receive the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal in 1922. Mary died in October of 1923, at the age of 57.


Amy is a former literature major with a penchant for the past and a tendency to wonder why popular history involves so many boring white men. She lives in Connecticut where she has too many books, several cats, and lots of tea. She often wishes there was a way to look like snapchat filters in real life.

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3 Responses to “This Week in Feminist History”

  1. meat_lord says:

    Another great sampling of historical women! Man, I didn't know that Marie Curie's daughter was also a scientist. That's sick.

  2. CleverManka says:

    The fact that the Curie family is still working in the sciences makes me really happy.

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